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Lost Hope

Graduate student Mohammad Herzallah researches depression among Palestinians, with the aim of creating a neuroscience institute.

Mohammad Herzallah is a graduate student at the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience at Rutgers–Newark.
Mohammad Herzallah is a graduate student at the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience at Rutgers–Newark. Photography by Ryan Lash

In the ancient town of Abu Dis, on the edge of Jerusalem, Mohammad Herzallah, a graduate student at the Rutgers Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience, labors several months each year to understand the “striking” prevalence of clinical depression among Palestinians living in the West Bank. Thirty-six percent of the population is afflicted with it, says Herzallah, who graduated from Al-Quds University School of Medicine in 2009, and joined the Rutgers–Newark graduate program the following year.

Indeed, Herzallah says, the high incidence of mood and anxiety disorders in the West Bank motivated him to take up the research. Although the depression he sees mirrors depressive “subtypes” in the United States, Palestinians exhibit greater rates of melancholic depression, the hallmark of which is loss of pleasure, joy, and hope.

“There is three times the amount of clinical depression here than there is in the United States,” says Herzallah, citing political, economic, and health care woes as primary causes. “It needs not only urgent interventions, but also extensive research on the psychological and biological basis of the disease.

“The driving force for my work,” he goes on, “was the general defeatist situation I encountered whenever I spoke about an ambitious idea or a dream,” he says. “I realized that people, even talented ones, become used to giving up.”

As a cognitive neuroscientist, Herzallah studies learning and memory function in patients with clinical depression in the West Bank. The goal is to investigate how variations in genes and hormones have an impact on the incidence of depression. Compounding matters, he says, is the extreme social stigma of acknowledging depression—let alone dealing with it. Herzallah is also engaged in creating public health campaigns that publicize depression and its bearing on the quality of life among sufferers.

Working with colleagues in the Rutgers/Al-Quds Brain Research Exchange, which fosters neuroscience research in nations with insufficient funding, Herzallah hopes to establish the Palestinian Neuroscience Institute at Al-Quds and have it working in five to 10 years. The result, he says, could be a “powerhouse” of neuroscience research in the region.
                                                                                                                                                    — Wendy Plump